A Time for Neuroplasticity

by Rev. Jonathan Rogers

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation February 18, 2018

Our brains have at least 100 trillion neural connections or synapses. That’s at least 1,000 times more than the number of stars in the galaxy. What’s incredible to me is the vast possibilities for shaping and reshaping those neural pathways and learning new skills.

Here’s what Tim Urban, author of the blog Wait But Why, says by way of explanation:

“You know how sometimes you learn a new skill and you get pretty good at it, and then the next day you try again and you stink again? That’s because what made you get good at the skill the day before was adjustments to the amount or concentration of the chemicals in the signaling between neurons. Repetition caused chemicals to adjust, which helped you improve, but the next day the chemicals were back to normal so the improvement went away.

But then if you keep practicing, you eventually get good at something in a lasting way. What’s happened is you’ve told the brain, ‘this isn’t just something I need in a one-off way,’ and the brain’s neural network has responded by making structural changes to itself that last. Neurons have shifted shape and location and strengthened or weakened various connections in a way that has built a hard-wired set of pathways that know how to do that skill.

Neurons’ ability to alter themselves chemically, structurally, and even functionally, allow your brain’s neural network to optimize itself to the external world—a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Babies’ brains are the most neuroplastic of all. When a baby is born, its brain has no idea if it needs to accommodate the life of a medieval warrior who will need to become incredibly adept at sword-fighting, a 17th-century musician who will need to develop fine-tuned muscle memory for playing the harpsichord, or a modern-day intellectual who will need to store and organize a tremendous amount of information and master a complex social fabric—but the baby’s brain is ready to shape itself to handle whatever life has in store for it.”

So, when we are talking about neuroplasticity, we are talking about the pliable kind of plastic, not the Tupperware kind of plastic. We’ve heard the Wait But Why explanation. And, I want to note it is part of an intensely interesting blog post about Neuralink, which is Elon Musk’s new company devoted to brain-machine interfaces. Fair warning, the post is 36,000 words long, and unless you are Ray Kurzweil, will give you about a dozen headaches.

This is a pretty vast and abstract outline so far, so let me share an example from my own life. I have known how to throw a frisbee forehand for about fourteen years. My friend Adam taught me during February of our freshman year of college. Since then I have put in a couple hundred hours of practice throwing forehand and also, the classic, backhand. *Air demonstration*. You may have heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of ten thousand hours of practice being needed to master something. In this case ten thousand hours is the amount of practice I would need to feel comfortable doing a live demonstration of these throws in a sanctuary during a sermon.

I’ve known about Gladwell’s ten thousand hours rule for almost as long as I’ve been throwing frisbees forehand. But I only more recently read for the first time about a neuroscientific perspective on this concept. Neuroscientists recommend that the rudiments of a new skill can be learned in more like ten to twenty hours of practice. Now we’re talking my language! This is according to a New Yorker feature by Patricia Marx. She describes how the neuroplasticity gains that come with learning new skills also decrease the risk and severity of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

These kinds of neuroscientific considerations were part of the reason I decided to learn how to throw a frisbee OVERhand. It seemed like just the kind of challenge that would allow me to get some of those brain benefits. That, and I wanted to frustrate people playing defense against me. Like I said, I already had backhand and forehand throws, but the advantage of overhand, or “hammer” throws as they are called, was that it is nearly impossible to defend. The biggest reason I had not learned it sooner was that it looks really dorky when you throw it even a little bit wrong. Fortunately, my wife is pretty used to me looking like a dork, so she has been willing to help me practice.

After a while, I had put in my dozen or two hours, promoted that neuroplasticity, and no longer looked like a puppet with its strings cut when I threw a hammer. Then, one afternoon, I was in a pick-up ultimate frisbee match at Grant Park, over about a half mile from Turner Field. My teammate Scott was running away from me toward the end zone, but he was covered to the right and I was covered to the left. We made eye contact and he cut back to his left; I threw overhand over the head of my defender and Scott caught it in the endzone with about an outfield’s worth of space made possible by my versatile new skill. This was a transcendent moment for me. How often do you get to say “I will learn Skill X to apply to Situation Y” and then have it work out that way so poetically? I have not been so satisfied with that pattern since I went home and applied what I learned in chapter 4 of OWL. (That’s the chapter on active listening in relationships, lest anyone get the wrong idea). There had been plenty of ugly moments as I learned that new skill, but in the end it felt great.

The good news is: even if you don’t find enactments of neuroplasticity very intrinsically satisfying, there are extrinsic reasons to affirm and promote neuroplasticity in your own life. As stated above, enhanced neuroplasticity is being found to reduce the risk and severity of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Traditionally, the thinking behind this has been that folks who develop themselves intellectually and stimulate themselves cognitively throughout their lives have built up more “brain reserves,” such that when the effects of dementia begin to take their toll, those people have more of a buffer against the cognitive loss of dementia.

The brain reserves theory is still part of the thinking on this topic, but to an ever-increasing extent, researchers are finding dynamic models of the brain’s development to be more effective descriptors than static ones. Columbia University Division Chief for Cognitive Neuroscience, Dr. Yaakov Stern, described it this way in a 2016 interview: “…I used to think of brain reserve as passive, in that you really couldn’t change your brain. But over the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve learned that is not the case . . . So this concept of brain reserve has become important as well, in that there are things we do that actually change our brains. When we exercise, our mind is actually getting larger in specific areas. Cognitive stimulation is associated with changes in the brain, too. So the brain itself is more plastic, and people have suggested the term ‘brain maintenance.’ There are things we can do to maintain our brains.”

Neuroplasticity has both intrinsic and extrinsic benefits, and the idea of being able to change one’s brain has perhaps never been more important than right now. Now is a time of higher stress and turmoil in politics, the economy, and patterns of congregational participation than I think many of us have seen in our lifetimes. Everything seems like it is changing very quickly, from the iteratively ever more rapid processes of technological change to the quick cycles of cultural processing that have arisen from our sudden ability to apprehend and react to information almost instantaneously. I get more of my news than I care to admit from Twitter, and the speed with which something appears, is discussed, and then disappears there is breath-taking.

Even if it were possible to keep up in the moment with all that is happening and being collectively processed, I don’t think that would be a good and healthy way for most of us to operate. But the fact that it’s happening at all is disorienting. It makes it that much more important for us to be grounded in spiritual practices and spiritual community that call us back to our sources of inner calm and peacefulness. The growing speed of change in the world at large increases our need for creating and nurturing new neural pathways and ways of relating to the world around us.

The persistent call in our faith tradition to be at the frontiers of justice-making work also asks us to be forming new neural pathways as we find important and novel ways to articulate and combat injustice in our time. For example, our Unitarian Universalist Association does a nation-wide “Common Read” every year, and in the 2012-2013 program year it was the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. That book asked us to reconsider the notion that Jim Crow laws were a thing of the past. It challenged us to examine the systemic oppression of the carceral state that exists in America today, one which has the profits of private prison companies as an impetus, and which disproportionately targets Black Americans in its operations. For many of us that was a big paradigm shift from the idea that Jim Crow was a thing of the past to the realization that we are living in an era whose racial injustices are at least comparable to those of past, shameful periods in American history. Those kinds of shifts are substantial, and require us to do not only the intellectual work of adopting a new paradigm, but also the emotional and spiritual work of processing around what our participation in such systems means every time we have to adjust the moral lens through which we see those systems.

There is a way forward in the midst of this stress and turmoil, but many times, if not most times, it will be different from the way that has taken us here in the first place. These new ways will require us to think and act differently. While coming up with new methods and processes can be stressful in its own right, it can also be an opportunity to promote our neuroplasticity and enhance our brains’ capacities for forming and following new neural pathways. Part of the good news of contemporary neuroscience is that there are health benefits down the line for sticking with it through the stress and anxiety.

And opportunities for neuroplasticity don’t have to just be Michelle Alexander and overhead Frisbee throws. One can learn a new board game or a video game. I found out this week Starcraft II is now available to play for free. You can learn a foreign language or a musical instrument. You can learn to use a new app or program, or the names of some of the plants and birds in our area, just for the sake of knowing. All the while, know that you are enhancing your own long-term health, and your capacity for living our shared values out into a changing and often confusing world.

Peace, salaam, shalom, and may it be so.